Deep within the fissures of our fragmented society and polarised debates about nationalism and intolerance, lie certain intersections. The people who stand at these intersections are either playing protagonist or antagonist in the story of today’s India.
It is now a common practice to unfriend and unfollow those on social media who seem to have different political views than ours. We curate our social media feeds to ensure that we only hear what we want to hear.
In such a scenario, how can you create an opinion of your own based on your own values? Will you let TV channels, viral posts and messages forwarded on Whatsapp be your ultimate sources of information?
In 2002, long before social media was a thing, two young men – Waqar Qazi and Gaurang Raval – had a powerful personal experience. They witnessed the Godhra riots and what they saw changed their lives forever.
After realising that young people had actively taken part in communal violence, Waqar and Gaurang decided to initiate a dialogue among youth in their respective communities. 12 years on, they are still holding space for youth to create their own experiences, question the beliefs that were handed down to them and form their own opinions.
First brush with communalism
Waqar was born in a Muslim family in Godhra. His father’s job took his family to different parts of rural Gujarat. He fondly remembers how his Hindu neighbours in Kutch would send over a pot of milk for him. He saw Muslim and Hindu families visiting each other and sharing meals.
Gaurang grew up in a small town in a largely middle class Hindu neighbourhood. Sometimes he heard elders say things like, “Muslims are very aggressive because they eat meat” and “all Muslims should go back to Pakistan”.
In the 90s, for the first time in his life, Waqar suddenly began to feel scared because of his religious identity. He says, “I used to live in a village in Kutch. At that time, there were only 3 Muslim families among 800 households. New posters began to appear on the walls of the paan shops.”
“The posters said ‘Hindutva hi rashtriyta hai’ (Hindutva is the only nationalism) and ‘Muslimo ke do hi sthaan – kabristan aur Pakistan’ (there are only 2 places for Muslims – graveyards and Pakistan).”
In 1999, as a young boy, Gaurang saw visuals of the Kandahar plane hijack on TV and in his mind, he began to associate Muslims with terrorism. As a teenager, he had already started attending meetings of an informal RSS shakha. Apart from learning about great freedom fighters and patriotic values there, he was taught one more thing – Muslims are the enemy.
It was only when Gaurang left his town to study at St. Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad that he met people with diverse identities. His classmates included Dalits, tribals, Muslims, Christians and Hindus. He began to realise that all that he was taught about the ‘other’ was not entirely true.
In the meanwhile, Waqar returned to Godhra, his hometown. He got married, began pursuing a Master’s degree and started working as a teacher on the side.
Witnessing the Godhra riots in 2002
Waqar and Gaurang’s lives were going on normally until one day in 2002 when communal riots broke out in Gujarat after the Godhra train burning. The ground beneath their feet shifted.
It had been some days since the riots started. A curfew had been imposed in Godhra. That evening, Waqar looked at the pond in front of his house and he noticed a mob standing on the other side, armed with mashaals (torchlights). Some time later they left.
Sleep eluded Waqar that night. He was overcome by a gut-wrenching fear – the fear of losing his family to a mob of rioters who were ready to loot, maim, murder and rape in the name of religion. “That night I kept thinking. I said to myself that killing others cannot solve our problems.”
Back in Ahmedabad, St. Xavier’s College was actively working on peace building and aiding those who had been displaced in the riots. They sent their students to rehabilitation camps as volunteers. Gaurang was one of them.
Gaurang felt a real jolt on the day he visited a rehabilitation camp for the first time. “Most people at the camp were Muslims who had been driven out of their homes during the riots. There I came across a girl child who had been raped. I learnt about children who were murdered.”
In that crucible moment, Gaurang realised that supporting such horrific acts of violence was not a part of his values. “That was the turning point for me. I wanted to do something about it, so I decided to talk about it with other college students.”
In Godhra, Waqar and his friends were also visiting rehabilitation camps where they met many young Muslims. “The youth there seemed to be divided into two kinds of groups – one wanted to take up arms and fight and the others wanted peace and justice through the law.”
After seeing this kind of divide, Waqar was eager to do something. Around the same time, Aman Samudaya, a collective of civil society organisations started a public library focused on spreading secularism and peace. While some youth were picking up weapons, Waqar decided to pick up books and read.
Taking steps to fight communalism
Waqar and Gaurang began parallel journeys – while the former focused on having a dialogue with young Muslims in small towns and villages, the latter wanted to initiate a conversation with middle class Hindu college students in a big city.
Their individual efforts were tied together by the same threads of secularism, critical thinking and faith in the Indian constitution.
Up until 2004-05, Gaurang ran an informal youth group to initiate conversations on communal harmony among youth at university level. Later he worked at Drishti media for some years in a programme which used films and theatre to promote communal harmony.
In 2011, he quit his job and finally started his passion project – Sauhard, an organisation that works with youth to promote peace, harmony and equality.
Gaurang explains communalism to college students using a simple exercise. He says:
“I ask students how many contacts they have on their mobile phone and how many of these are people from another religion. Usually, they tend to have only 1-2 such people among hundreds of contacts. This is where communalism begins because it shows that we don’t even communicate with people from religions other than ours.”
Sauhard runs a youth fellowship programme for college students from Ahmedabad where they undertake an 8-month learning journey. Students learn about the Indian constitution, youth leadership and gender through workshops, exposure trips, film screenings, theatre, comics and creative writing.
Talking about how youngsters pick up the communal vibe on social media, Gaurang says, “There is a lot of content on social media which promotes communalism, teaches wrong history, glorifies communalists and vehemently advocates for a Hindu rashtra.”
Sauhard collaborates with Alt News to conduct workshops where youth learn techniques to tell fake news from real news.
Gaurang recounts an incident about how his organisation encourages young people to learn from their own experiences. A girl involved with Sauhard printed stickers saying “mazhab nahi sikhata, aapas mein bair rakhna (religion does not teach mutual enmity).” She approached 100 neighbourhoods across Ahmedabad seeking permission to display the stickers in public places. Out of 100 housing societies, only 25 allowed her to display the stickers.
“She was shocked after this experience. She heard people say many things that showed how deeply entrenched communalism is in our society,” says Gaurang.
Waqar’s foray into social action is somewhat similar. What began as volunteering for him, soon turned into a full time job at Aman Samudaya in 2004. He began to connect with young people from both Hindu and Muslim communities to address the larger question of youth as citizens in a democracy.
After having formed a connection with the community, Waqar joined documentary filmmakers, writers, researchers and mediapersons in their interactions with people who had suffered and taken part in the riots. He began to see things from a newer and deeper perspective. He says:
“As I heard these stories over months, I began to feel a sense of helplessness. It was not easy. The only thing that kept me going was the desire to learn stories of hope.”
Soon after that, Waqar started working at Urja Ghar in Lambadiya village in Sabar Kantha district of Gujarat. In this area, villagers displaced by the riots were hesitant to return to their homes. Apart from helping survivors file cases, informing them about the law and helping them re-establish their lives, Waqar recognised the urgent need to work with local youth.
When he started visiting Lambadiya, Waqar received threats from certain extremist groups. But he persisted and today he continues to work in the same area. He is now a board member at Urja Ghar. His expertise lies in working with children and youth in the Muslim community by using the power of dialogue, critical thinking and active citizenship.
Waqar says, “None of our freedom fighters dreamed of an India as it is today where communal feelings are on the rise…my dream is to create an India where everyone will have a place.”
Impacting young lives to promote communal harmony
Both Sauhard and Urja Ghar have come a long way since they started. Till date, Urja Ghar has touched the lives of more than 1,000 youth, women and men in the districts of Sabarkantha, Banaskantha (in Gujarat) and Udaipur (in Rajasthan). Currently, they are expanding their work to different rural and urban areas in Gujarat.
Waqar shares what inspires him to do what he’s doing in the face of all odds. He says, “Coming from a community that faces religious discrimination, I would never want any other person to suffer at the hands of communalism…I’m also motivated by the desire to multiply the impact of this work by collaborating with other organisations who work on related issues in the development sector.”
Sauhard reaches out to 8,000 youth every year across Gujarat and their work has been amplified through 250 fellows. Gaurang says, “When I see the young people associated with us bringing change in their own communities, it motivates me greatly. Today’s socio-political situation, which is influenced by violence and extremism, also pushes me to work harder.”
We hope that the story of these two amazing youth workers have inspired you to reflect and speak up against communalism. You can connect with Urja Ghar on Facebook. You can learn more about Sauhard on their website, Facebook & Twitter.
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